This Research Note documents President Eisenhower’s views on Southeast Asia in general, but Laos in particular, which advocate for US military intervention to prevent the fall of Laos to Communists. We comment on the implications of his views regarding escalation in Southeast Asia as continuity of policy for the period 1945-1972.
We take the view that the Viet Nam War was an American experience which started immediately after World War 2 and ended in 1975, making it America’s own 30 Years War. It thus affected the presidencies of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. Involvement in the region escalated continuously until President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Viet Nam in 1972.
President Eisenhower focused on providing aid to various Southeast Asian countries in an effort to mute or reverse the influences of Communist forces seeking to establish rule in the region. While he authorized a number of military advisors to assist the Vietnamese, he did not commit combat troops.
He viewed Laos as the linchpin of the region, so much so that he felt that the United States should take unilateral military action in Laos should Communist forces threaten to overpower the non-Communist government. Eisenhower also shared this view with President-elect Kennedy in 1961 and maintained it without change for the duration of the Kennedy presidency.
Kennedy in turn was quite solicitous of the General’s views, maintaining a steady correspondence with him about Southeast Asia and other domestic and foreign matters.
In a Memorandum on Conference between President Eisenhower and President-elect Kennedy and their Chief Advisers on January 19, 1961, date January 24, 1961, Kennedy advisor Clark Clifford recorded the following observation from the meeting about President Eisenhower:
At this point, President Eisenhower stated that Laos is the present key to the entire area of South East Asia. If Laos were lost to the Communists, it would bring an unbelievable pressure to bear on Thailand, Cambodia and South Vietnam. President Eisenhower stated that he considered Laos of such importance that if it reached the stage where we could not persuade others to act with us, then he would be willing, "as a last desperate hope, to intervene unilaterally."
Robert McNamara also attended the meeting, but filed this report to the President-elect:
7* President Eisenhower stated without qualification "If Laos is lost to the Free World, in the long run we will lose all of Southeast Asia." A. With respect to Laos: 1. President Eisenhower advised against unilateral action by the United States in connection with Laos.
The notes are most intriguing in what they emphasize. Clifford reports Eisenhower supporting unilateral intervention as a last but necessary step, while McNamara only reports Eisenhower’s reluctance to take unilateral action, which in and of itself does not foreclose such action.Kennedy’s own recollection of the meeting is as follows:
I asked the Secretary [Herter] as to whether in his opinion we should intervene if the SETO was invoked by the government. He said very directly that he felt we should. It was the cork in the bottle. If Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines, and of course Chiang Kai Shek would go. I turned to the President. He stated also that he felt we should intervene.
In Kennedy’s memorandum, the trigger is a SEATO invocation for intervention against the Communists rather than a unilateral one. So while they all heard Eisenhower support intervention in Laos, it is not clear whether this action required SEATO sanction or joint action, or, if the US would shoulder the intervention alone, thus making it unilateral. That undertaking would be outside the boundaries of the treaty which was a mutual defense pact.
In 1962, Eisenhower clears the ambiguities noted above, according to CIA Director John McCone’s Memorandum for the Record dated May 10, 1962:
Eisenhower dwelt at length on the danger of South Vietnam and Thailand as both will be outflanked if Laos is in the Communist hands and concluded that such a situation would be so critical to Southeast Asia and so important to the U. S. that most extreme measures, including the commitment of U.S. forces to combat in Laos, were justified.
Eisenhower is later reported in the memorandum as stating that US unilateral action would be “appropriate.” He expressed views so strongly about the importance of Laos and Southeast Asia that he urged the President to go before Congress seeking authorization to act in Southeast Asia.
It is thus impossible for anyone to argue that Eisenhower opposed escalation in Vietnam, even if his own administration had not reached that point. He certainly felt that events were rapidly reaching a crescendo in 1962, and we must note that Eisenhower received regular military and intelligence briefings throughout the Kennedy tenure.
For those arguing that Eisenhower was opposed to military intervention in the region, we present the official records which point blankly contradict that view. The explanation is simple – namely that events in Laos had so devolved that the former president’s views evolved to the point of advising President Kennedy to escalate the war.
Subsequent consultations with President Johnson support the thesis that Eisenhower favored escalation as he often spoke approvingly of actions Johnson proposed which increased American involvement in Southeast Asia.
We believe that we have demonstrated from official memoranda of secret meetings with President Kennedy and his advisors that President Eisenhower advocated an interventionist strategy in Laos and Southeast Asia in general. The fact that his administration committed relatively light resources to the region in no way reflects his fully developed view of the situation in the peninsula.
We then conclude that Kennedy's actions in Southeast Asia were a moderation of Eisenhower's strategy and ideas on the foreign policy challenges posed by the region.
Eisenhower-John F Kennedy Correspondence, Correspondences - Contact Documents, Eisenhower-JFKContact.pdf
Copyright 2013 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.